Brenda Murphy’s Review: Making Theory Accessible with Intimate Ethnography

This is my sixth post in my Year of Women’s Voices blog series, and features my review of Alisse Waterston’s ethnography My Father’s Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century (2014). In this intimate ethnography of her father, Dr. Waterston has written a frank portrayal of her father as a man, a survivor, a soldier, an entrepreneur, husband, and father. Her writing honors her father without maudlin sentiment. She frames her father’s lived experiences with migration and violence, and uses his experiences to illustrate social theory in a way that makes it accessible for non-academics.

Her writing is crisp, clear, and rich with detail. She chooses a concise series of her father’s life events that create a reading experience that is informative, and moving. The reading experience is enhanced by the companion website that contains photographs, documents, audio files, and videos of her interviews with her father as she worked on this ethnography. The book becomes a much more intimate experience through watching the interactions between Dr. Waterston and her father, observing their body language, and listening to their voices.

As a writer I appreciate Dr. Waterston’s explanation of her struggles in her dual roles as daughter and ethnographer, and her process of conducting research. I truly appreciated her discussion of the discipline it took to not be distracted by the numerous ideas for other projects that called to her during this project, especially when the experience of the project became difficult.

If you are interested in ethnographic studies, social theory, history, Judaic studies, anthropology, or if you are looking for an extremely readable book that might help you understand how the experience of violence shapes lives, this is the book I would hand you.

What I have learned as a writer:
1. It is okay to include yourself in the story.
2. Stick with the project even when it is hard, or other projects beckon seductively from your research.
3. It is possible to portray unflattering behaviors in a way that is not overly sympathetic, nor vindictive.
4. Multimedia can make a non-fiction project a richer experience, and allows the writer to include research material that would be otherwise not be available.
5. Write the story that is hard to write, be fearless.
6. Don’t be trapped by conventions of disciplines or genre.

I am grateful that Dr. Waterston has created a work that is compelling, and readable on a subject that is difficult to read about. When confronted with violence, most of us want to turn away, to shield our eyes and our minds from horrific events. Dr. Waterston reminds us that even if we want to look away, we must not, we need to understand.
Friday, August 15, 2014

In a personal email, Stacy Meier Olds, a social worker, writes to the author:

This is your faithful reader in Dallas.

Well, just finished reading “My Father’s Wars” and thoroughly enjoyed it! Bravo, bravo, bravo. It was so worthwhile on many levels. It helped me better understand the history of the world wars on a very intimate scale, especially as those times affected people in Poland, especially Jews. But also, it helped me see how those times affected your dad and in turn, affected your whole family and of course you!

Thank you for your courage in exploring such personal territory and sharing it with readers. As the daughter of a difficult father myself I was pretty amazed at how honest you were, how able to see your dad — and still love him so profoundly — for all his human faults and strengths.

After finishing the book, I went through the online accompaniment and it was especially searing to see your dad “in the flesh” so to speak. Am sure you miss him very much, and of course: your mom too. I loved how you ended your story with your mom, too. Was she ahead of her time or what ??!

All the best and please know that your book is now part of my memory and consciousness and it lives on! Your dad and mom Do live on!

Beautiful Words of Support for My Father’s Wars
In “A 2014 Challenge for the Social Sciences,” Paul Stoller writes in the Huffington Post (January 16, 2014)

“The challenge for the social sciences — at least for me — is to simultaneously maintain rigorous standards while producing works that clearly and powerfully articulate important insights to broad audiences across a variety of media. In my discipline, anthropology, the challenge is to communicate critical insights about social life in such a way that moves audiences to think and to act.

Many of my colleagues devote considerable energy to debate the whys and wherefores of nature, culture, social change, globalization and ontological turns. These debates are usually articulated in specialized languages that may demonstrate brilliance but often limit the reach of insight. There is no reason that theoretically informed findings cannot be communicated to broad audiences.

I present two recent examples from authors who are anthropologists. The first is David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years…. The second example is Alisse Waterston’s My Father’s Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century, which is an anthropologically and historically informed memoir on the impact of social upheaval on the social, economic and emotional life of one man, Michael Waterston, who fled Poland, landed in Cuba and eventually made his way to New York City.

In this book Waterston employs the considerable power of narrative — a daughter’s intimate but thoroughly anthropological account of her father’s fascinatingly troubled life — to connect with her readers. In so doing she demonstrates how powerful historical forces have a tangible impact on the everyday dramas of family life. Such a tack gives her book broad appeal. Although Debt and My Father’s Wars are very different kinds of books, they share one import feature: they both demonstrate quite palpably how the forces of history or of debt — abstract forces — have a real impact on our everyday lives. These are works that engage the public. They are works that compel readers to think, feel and act.

The public advocacy of anthropology’s founding father, Franz Boas, long ago set the standard for social scientific public engagement. He expended his considerable academic capital on a long battle against racism and social intolerance. As a 2014 challenge, it is perhaps time for more social scientists to follow his lead in order to demonstrate the indispensability of the social sciences. Our future depends upon it.”

Advance Praise for My Father’s Wars

[zilla_alert style=”grey”]”Not every father is blessed with an ethnographer for a daughter – and not every ethnographer has a father with such an extraordinary story and memory. The intimate ethnography arising from that relationship is nothing short of exceptional. Experimental and hybrid, this ethnography exemplifies what anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff calls the “third voice,” something new that arises “when two points of view are engaged in examining one life.” That life, lived in times of war and trauma, a Jewish life lived in Poland, is given a new life in this innovative ethnography.”

– Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, author of They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, with her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, New York University.[/zilla_alert]

[zilla_alert style=”grey”]”My Father’s Wars is a beautifully written book that brilliantly weaves the emotional intensity of familial relationships through a torrent 20th century history. The unique trajectory of a family’s migration sets the stage for a gripping story that accentuates personal travails amidst the damaged grandeur of 20th century white masculinity.  In my view, this book should be a model for intimate ethnography.”

– Tim Black, author of When A Heart Turns Rock Solid, Case Western Reserve University [/zilla_alert]

[zilla_alert style=”grey”]”This is a remarkable work that may well become an anthropological classic.  The combination of honesty, vulnerability, and deep scholarship expressed in supremely readable prose is rare.  Waterston has obviously carried out a great deal of research, but she wears her knowledge lightly, using it to understand rather than impress.”

– Joan Cassell, author of The Woman in the Surgeon’s Body, Washington University in St. Louis[/zilla_alert]

[zilla_alert style=”grey”]”Alisse Waterston’s intimate ethnography begins with a writer’s question: how can you tell your father’s story if you are a daughter who is also an anthropologist? My Father’s War is an extraordinary account of a man “born into war,” that begins in Jedwabne, Poland, a man whose memories can bring him—and the reader—to tears. It’s also the gripping narrative of a daughter’s return to places where pieces of tragic Jewish history took root.

– Nancy K. Miller, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, CUNY Graduate Center.[/zilla_alert]

[zilla_alert style=”grey”]”This is an utterly fascinating, touching, informative, and beautifully crafted “intimate ethnography.” Historical, personal, and anthropological, it crosses genres and disciplines. I love this book.”

– Fran Mascia-Lees, author of Gender and Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology, Rutgers University. [/zilla_alert]